Italian director and designer Franco Zeffirelli, renowned for his extravagant opera stagings, has died at his home in Rome at the age of 96.

Zeffirelli was born in 1923 in Florence to Ottorino Corsi, a wool and silk merchant, and Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer, both of whom were married to other people, a fact that had a lasting effect on Zeffirelli. The future opera director’s name was chosen by his mother, apparently a mis-transcription of the word “zeffiretti” – meaning little breezes – heard in an aria from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. That the word doesn’t appear in the opera has done little to dim the legend.

His studies in architecture were interrupted by the Second World War but he got his theatre break in the late 1940s working with director Luchino Visconti, designing the set for the first production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in Italy in 1949.

Franco ZeffirelliZeffirelli with Olivia Hussey while filming Romeo and Juliet in 1967

While he is well-known for his film versions of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (his first film as director, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) in 1967 and Romeo and Juliet in 1968, and later his 1990 Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson, in the opera world he was famous for his lavish stagings, particularly his productions for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, many of which remained in the company’s repertoire for decades.

Zeffirelli already had several productions at Milan’s La Scala under his belt before his success overseas, designing Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri in 1952, before going on to design and direct La Cenerentola in 1953 and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore the following year. He was soon in-demand, directing Dallas Civic Opera’s 1958 production of La Traviata with Maria Callas and the Royal Opera House’s Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland in London in 1959.

He began his fruitful relationship with the Met in 1964 with Falstaff, with Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, a Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci double bill and Otello soon to follow. His 1981 La Bohème is the most-performed of any production in the Met’s history his Bohème and Turandot are still performed by the Met today.

“Zeffirelli was one of the most significant directors and designers in the history of the Metropolitan Opera, and his productions helped define the company’s theatrical identity for more than 30 years,” the Met said in a statement. “His productions aimed to faithfully recount the opera’s story as the creators specified, often in the most opulent manner possible. Breathtakingly beautiful and intricate, they have always been immensely popular with audiences and remain touchstones of the realistic style.”

His career was not without controversy, however. He served two terms as a Senator for Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia party and drew condemnation for declaring in a New Yorker article in 1996 that he would “impose the death penalty on women who had abortions,” and was criticised, having come out as gay in 1996, for publicly supporting the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality. In 2018 he was accused of sexually assaulting an actor during shooting of his 1993 film Storia di una capinera, allegations Zeffirelli’s son Pippo Corsi Zeffirelli denied, describing them as “a true and proper vendetta.”

Zeffirelli was made a Knight of the British Empire for his services to the British arts in 2014 and continued to work late into his life. He was even slated to direct a new production of Rigoletto for Royal Opera Muscat in Oman in 2020, an opera he hadn’t directed since 1964 at the Royal Opera House.

Since his death on Saturday, tributes have been pouring out from the opera community. “All at The Royal Opera are saddened to hear of the death of Franco Zeffirelli,” said London’s Royal Opera House in a statement. “He directed a number of productions for the Company including a much-loved Tosca. Zeffirelli was a major figure in film and TV as well as theatre. He will be hugely missed.”

“Very sad to hear of the passing of Franco Zeffirelli,” wrote Opera Australia Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini on Twitter. “One of the great innovators who made large numbers of people want to go to the opera. I remember queuing in freezing cold at La Scala to see his production of Un Ballo in Maschera. He saw us and gave us all Panettone!”